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The unexpected role of the Jay at Hardknott Forest

"MY ROLE AT HARDKNOTT FOREST" by Jay Heaton, Project Assistant, January 2023

I was taken on by Restoring Hardknott Forest
in the Autumn on a six-month contract. This coincided with the ‘cutting season’, which is the period over the winter at Hardknott where the chainsaws come out of the tool shed and get put to use felling non-native trees. We do not cut during the warmer months because of the potential disruption to nesting birds, and a busy schedule means that other tasks take priority. It also probably has something to do with the fact that chainsawing in high summer is usually an unpleasant mix of sweat, midges and ticks (as I discovered during my chainsaw training back in August!)

Jay at work clearing non-native trees...

..which means these birch trees get the light they need to thrive.

On paper then, I was employed to provide an extra pair of hands during the cutting season, tasked with increasing the dent in the dwindling swathes of Sitka spruce that still occupy areas of the forest. Whilst this is the bread and butter of my work, the role has provided more variety than I had anticipated. I am now over three months into my contract, and perhaps just over half of my workdays have been with a chainsaw in hand. In the rest of my time, I have been occupied with volunteer days, ecological monitoring, general site work, external outreach days, site visits across Cumbria, and perhaps even the occasional pint in the pub after work! I am thankful for this variety. On a physical level, it makes the work I do with a chainsaw more manageable: felling trees is hard graft, especially in foul weather (which there has been plenty of this winter!), so breaking up the days on the saw gives me time to recuperate and come back to it at full tilt. The diversity of work has also provided me with lots of hands-on experience in a range of jobs and has been an excellent learning and networking opportunity. I have come to see it as a sort of informal apprenticeship, which has given me the skills and confidence I need to progress in the industry.

Jay has also helped on volunteer days and residentials

I came into the job a few months after graduating from the University of Cumbria with an environmental science and outdoor education degree. Even though it was a very practical course where experiential education made up a big part of the learning, it still had its fair share of essays and deadlines, and by the end of the three years I was feeling very academically fatigued. My course had been excellent, but I was keen to get stuck into a practical role. As the summer progressed, my retail job began to drag, and I knew that being cooped up indoors all days under fluorescent light was not for me. I was already aware of the Restoring Hardknott Forest project as I had been attending the volunteer days on and off with my old man for the past three years. On a whim, I sent the Project Officer John Hodgson an email enquiring about potential work. I was in luck, as there was a temporary contract coming up. I could argue that my days spent volunteering with the project over the years and my shiny new degree demonstrated that I would be a good candidate for the role, but in reality, it was probably because almost everyone who works for the project has the initials ‘JH’, and my name fitted the bill. I will let you decide! (It also enabled me to use a highly misleading title for this article).

In all seriousness, this is easily the best job I have ever had, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in my favourite valley in the Lake District. I grew up in the Furness area just down the road from the Duddon valley and I have been coming to Hardknott Forest since I was a nipper. At the time, I was a grumpy child being dragged around the woods by his dad, and I would throw tantrums and sit down in puddles and refuse to walk any further! But as I got older, I came to really enjoy these walks with my dad. Even now that I work at Hardknott, I still come in on my days off to explore its woods and crags. It feels like home to me, and on a bonny afternoon there is nowhere in the world more lovely.

Friends of the Lake District staff on a recent visit to the project

This six month contract will soon be at an end. I have nothing but good things to say about the project. My work colleagues quickly became my friends, I have learnt loads and I have had lots of fun. There has been some hard days with some horrible weather, but we have cracked on and kept smiling. I am glad to be in this line of work, and I really owe it all to my dad, who fostered in me a love of fells and woods on those walks all those years ago.

We'd like to acknowledge funding support from Copeland Community Fund, the Green Recovery Challenge Fund and Friends of the Lake District, who have enabled the project to create this role.